He is the rockstar of devotional chant. But Krishna Das would vehemently denounce that proclamation, saying instead that his best-selling albums of westernized, traditional Hindu devotional music and packed concerts are not for entertainment’s sake but are simply forums for his own spiritual meditations—to be “in the presence of” his guru, Neem Karoli Baba (Maharaj-ji).
“My performances,” said Das in a July 2005 article by Don Heckman in the Los Angeles Times, “are a way of clearing out the dark places in my heart.”
But it’s this element of darkness—this redemptive yearning—that makes Das so appealing. It’s an appeal that I find has parallels to the late, great Johnny Cash.
Like Cash, Das has a somber, mesmerizing voice that is undeniably strong yet belies a certain profound sense of longing or connection. Both Cash and Das seem to be singing directly to God, through sin and salvation, in an effort to quiet the demons inside. Both come from turbulent pasts, filled with drug and alcohol addictions, which only serves to make the salvation more authentic, the devotion more powerful.
“It blows my mind, first of all, that there really is a ‘spiritual path,’” said Das in his documentary, One Life at a Time. “And then it blows my mind even more that I might be on it.”
In the early 1970’s, Krishna Das (then Jeffrey Kagel) was one of many Westerners who latched onto the wave of Eastern philosophies made popular by Ram Dass and his pivotal book, Be Here Now. It was after conversations with Dass that Das decided to make his own venture to India in a quest to “open and purify” his heart.
It was there that Das studied Bhakti Yoga and Buddhist meditation practices with Maharaj-ji, who was thought to be the embodiment of Hanuman, the Monkey God. Das went deep into the practice of kirtan, or the fluid chanting of the names of God. But after three years, Maharaj-ji told Das to go back to America.
At that time, Das wasn’t ready to go back. He was fearful and still didn’t know what purpose, if any, he had in America. But he went, and fell into a spiral of depression, drugs and alcohol, which didn’t let up for several years, even preventing a return trip to India when Maharaj-ji beckoned for him.
By the time Das made it back to India several after his guru’s death, he was still in a deep depression. But something profound happened when he visited the temple where Maharaj-ji used to reside. That’s when Das says he “got the hit,” when every moment of his life flashed before his eyes—every emotion he ever had and the reasons for his actions—as well as the knowledge that Maharaj-ji was there with him every step of the way. It was a moment that would change his life forever.
He decided he would sing to his guru. The result has been prolific. Das has now worked with rap/rock producer Rick Rubin, Steely Dan producer Walter Becker, Aerosmith producer Jay Messsina and Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen, Madonna and Sting. His Kosmic Kirtan Posse—his satsang singers—has featured Mike D of the Beastie Boys. Not that Das cares about any of that.
By the way, Rick Rubin also produced Johnny Cash’s four American Recordings albums. MTW